Known as the “voice of books” on NPR, Alan Cheuse is the author of five novels and four collections of short fiction, most recently An Authentic Captain Marvel Ring (Santa Fe Writers Project, April). BookTrib had the opportunity to talk to Cheuse about his writing process, the power of short stories, and, of course, his book recommendations.
How do you separate the job of talking about books from your own writing?
I understand that what we call normal people, or “civilians,” work all day doing things that don’t allow them the pleasure of reading, so in the evenings they want to curl up with a good book. But that’s when I’m turning my movies on.
As I see it, my main labor is my writing. So that’s what I do every morning. I divide the day up depending on what kind of deadlines I’m working on. In the evenings, I read and watch movies. I understand that what we call normal people, or “civilians,” work all day doing things that don’t allow them the pleasure of reading, so in the evenings they want to curl up with a good book. But that’s when I’m turning my movies on. It’s a bizarre life. It’s the inverse of an ordinary person’s day and night. But I do put my imaginative writing into my own fiction.
Do you write every day?
Yes, I do. I get up, not horribly early, do my meditation and then my yoga. I eat breakfast and take a walk around the neighborhood. Then it’s back to write. So I usually start writing, depending on the day and the season, somewhere between 8:00 and 8:30 every day.
Do you write by hand or on the computer?
I use a PC. I started out on the typewriter when I worked in various extremes of the newspaper business and I used one when I first started writing. Typing is something I do naturally. I don’t take handwriting seriously. I know writers who write by hand. The most extreme handwriting case I know is my dear old mentor Bernard Malamud. He would compose in handwriting and type up what he wrote by hand. He would make corrections on the typed version and then copy it over in handwriting. He considered that his first draft. That’s what he did for all of his stories and novels, so you can imagine the labor involved.
When you’re in the midst of project, do you avoid reading fiction with a similar bent to what you’re writing?
I really love spy novels and thrillers. That’s what I tend to read at night. I hope when I say this that it doesn’t sound too egotistical—I write like myself and I don’t write like other people. I think fiction writers write what they do because no one else has written it and they want to read it. So there’s that distinction between what you’re reading and what you’re writing. Some years back, I wrote a novel about Edward Curtis, the photographer of the American Indian, so I’d probably say then that I didn’t want to read a novel about Curtis. There were lots of books I read for research but I wouldn’t read a fictionalized version of his life while I was writing one.
The Santa Fe Writers Project, which published The Amazing Captain Marvel Ring, seems unique in the current world of giant publishing conglomerates.
It is. It’s basically a one-person operation. It was started by a man named Andrew Gifford, who would have been the heir to the Gifford ice cream fortune in Washington, D.C., if his father hadn’t embezzled all the money and disappeared. He’s actually writing a memoir about that; he’s calling it We All Scream, which I think is great. The Santa Fe Writers Project has been his pet project and he’s published a couple books of mine before this one. He published two volumes of novellas, for which I’ll always be grateful because the novella is such a weird form. When I first started writing them—and I didn’t choose to write them, I just started—I didn’t think anyone would publish them. They take up so much space in magazines but I’ve managed to publish all of them in various magazines over the past 10 or 12 years. The magazines really have to like the pieces because they could publish three, even four, stories in that space. Then Andrew decided that he wanted to publish a little book of novellas—he thought people could carry them around, read them on the train.
In the very beginning, when you get an idea, do you know whether it’s going to turn into a short story, a novella, or a novel?
I think I know right away. It’s like how you know immediately the sex of the child you give birth to. Novels are such an enormous task and so complicated that you really could go insane if you didn’t have that sense, which is something you build up over the years and enhance through years of reading, going into the first minutes of the first days of your project.
Are you a writer who outlines?
No, I’m not. I’ve written the first draft of a thriller, the first one I’ve ever done, and I didn’t even plot that out very carefully until I was a couple chapters in. But I’ve never outlined with my mainstream fiction. There are some historical stories in my collections, like the Ben Franklin story, and there I knew enough of the biographical material that I knew where I wanted to focus. That story actually grew out of the Franklin epigram in the beginning, which is from his autobiography. As far as the contemporary stories go, I’ll work from scenes—I’ll try to work a particular scene as far as I can. Scenes have their own rhythm that you have to figure out and that will lead you along. To me, that’s like the opposite of outlining or sketching something out. Instead you have to find the interior rhythm; you have to know, and learn to know, how to arrange the material to figure out the plot.
What are some things you’ve read recently that you’d recommend to people for this summer?
I just finished a collection of stories by Rivka Galchen, called American Innovations, which was fabulous. Very eccentric but also right on target at the same time. I’m reading the translation of Shooting Star (Muerte de Una Estrella), a novel by a Chicano writer named Sergio Elizondo, which recently came out in a bilingual edition. The original Spanish version came out at least 15 or 20 years ago and it hasn’t been published in English before now.
I also enjoyed Anthony Doerr’s novel, All the Light We Cannot See. For June, there’s David Ignatius’s spy thriller, The Director. There’s also a huge, tri-continental novel by an Indian writer named Kalyan Ray, called No Country, which is set in Ireland, India, and the United States. It’s a big smorgasbord of a novel that I liked a lot.
I’m trying to put together a summer reading piece featuring a couple of new writers, like Rachel Weaver and her novel, Point of Direction, about a young woman trying to find her way in Alaska. And while I’ve only read the first story so far, I’m really enjoying Kseniya Melnick’s Snow in May. She’s originally from Siberia. They’re terrific stories. She can write a wonderful sentence.